Wicker Lessons

Beltane creeps up unnoticed.  Not an official holiday in these parts, it is, hopefully, a sign of slightly warmer weather than we’ve been having in April.  It’s also the day that I can’t help but think of The Wicker Man.  One of the early intelligent horror offerings, it came out 49 years ago.  My book on the movie, as far as I know, is still scheduled to come out next year, on its fiftieth anniversary.  Watch this space for further announcements.  In any case, today I have a piece on The Wicker Tree—the “spiritual sequel” to the movie, appearing on Horror Homeroom.  Societies in old Europe tended to celebrate this as the beginning of summer, which explains why Midsummer comes half-way through June.  The seasons aren’t always the same in all times and places.

In Germanic countries, Walpurgisnacht, which began last night, was a time of concern about witches.  Our modern calendar tries to concentrate our fears in late October, but they are appropriate any time of year.  These days Beltane’s more of a day when we expect warmer weather to start rolling in and perhaps, especially this year, hopes for peace.  May tends to be a hopeful time—it’s a transition.  The persistence of our fears suggests that learning to deal with them might well be a good idea.  Instead of hiding monsters away, why not face them?  The Wicker Tree isn’t a great horror movie, but something holds true for it—the monsters are us.  In that film capitalism is the real horror.

What makes The Wicker Man the classic that it is is religion.  More specifically, the clash between religions, neither of which is willing to yield.  This is largely behind religious violence throughout history, up to the present.  Religions convinced that they’re the only possible way to the truth can’t recognize that believers of other religions feel exactly the same way.  Yet May is about transitions—one season giving way to another.  It’s part of the inexorable change that marks life on this planet.  We may not fear witches in the mountains any more, but we still fear what’s out there.  Beltane is a hopeful holiday—a day of blessing animals and building fires to encourage the strengthening sun.  Instead of making it a day of clashing beliefs, perhaps we should look for our common humanity in it.  Perhaps we can learn a deeper lesson from The Wicker Man.


Beauty of Ruins

One of the things I most miss about living in Scotland is the relative dearth of stone ruins in my home country.  In no way to diminish the culture of American Indians, there’s a particular poignancy about stone—which is supposed to be forever—falling apart.  As a homeowner I’ve discovered that you constantly have to repair to keep any kind of building up—something better suited to those with more money than we have.  In any case, my memories of Scotland quite often center on ruined castles and the gothic dreams that accompanied visiting them.  I can’r recall how many we actually had a chance to explore, but it was many.  And not only castles, but other crumbling structures, including monasteries.  Monasteries are, if possible, even more gothic in ruin.

On a rare sunny day this spring I visited the remains of Bethlehem Steel’s silent behemoth.  This industrial powerhouse took up much of the valley dividing the south side of Bethlehem from the older, more genteel colonial part of town.  While these ruins are modern—the factory shut down only in 1995—and steel, it nevertheless caters to gothic sensibilities.  There is a raised platform that allows visitors to examine the exterior from a safe distance, but still close enough to get a sense of its enormity.  The great steel furnaces and blowers and train cars are rusty after nearly three decades of sitting in the elements.  The roofs are falling in on some of the buildings.  Others have been repurposed or replaced with contemporary businesses.  Walking through, however, you can’t help but to imagine past lives.  This was hard, dangerous work.  For most it meant small rewards.  A living wage.  A modest house.

The Bethlehem Steel stacks are a landmark.  Allentown and Bethlehem merge into one another and out driving backroads it’s sometimes hard to tell which you’re in.  Once you spot the steel stacks from afar, however, you know where Bethlehem is.  Like a star guiding magi, the ruins proclaim that something significant once happened here.  Lives in Scottish castles, I expect, were often boring.  Our “something new every second” culture didn’t exist and news traveled slowly.  There was surely humdrum jobs in Bethlehem Steel as well.  Days when remembering that during World War One this factory produced a battleship per day.  Or when the realization that Manhattan’s skyscrapers couldn’t have existed without the I-beam developed in this plant.  There’s a sense of history about such places.  What makes them fascinating is that they’re falling apart.


Earth Haunting

I’m still not sure what I saw.  I’m not even sure how I learned about it (it was likely either Theofantastique or Horror Homeroom), but In the Earth is a very strange film.  I can’t say it’ll be on my shelf of favorites—there’s a little too much Wolf Creek here for that—but I can say it’s something I’ll be thinking about for some time.  Body horror isn’t my favorite, but I do like to remind myself periodically of the dangers of going into the woods.  Released just last year, In the Earth is a pandemic-response film that critics say is funny (I kind of missed that aspect, I’ll admit) about a scientist and a ranger who are journeying into a particularly fecund woodland outside Bristol for research.  Martin, the lead, has an ulterior motive in that the researcher already in the woods is a former girlfriend.

Martin heads out with Alma, the ranger, and they fall into a trap set by Zach, and I suppose the humor comes in Zach’s constant observations that Martin’s wounds have gotten worse and require backwoods surgery.  The couple escape Zach (who’s clearly deranged) after he drugs them and poses them in odd clothes to propitiate the spirit of the woods.  They find their way to Olivia (the researcher/former girlfriend) and her research station only to learn Zach is her ex-husband.  And here things get weirder.  To communicate with the earth, Olivia first used an old ritual book that includes the Malleus Maleficarum and additional material.  This ancient book tells how to decipher the language of the earth through the use of light and sound with the aid of a runic standing stone that’s on no map.

Religion plays a major part in the horror here.  Olivia and Zach both want to sacrifice Martin at the runic stone.  Anyone who can watch this without seeing echoes of Abraham and Isaac probably has fewer religious nightmares than I do.  Martin, they all say, is so innocent and straightforward.  Alma keeps on trying to get Martin out of the woods but either Zach or Olivia, or the forest itself via a toxic cloud of mushroom spores, prevents them.  There are so many flashing strobes and intercut images from the spores and oddly disturbing sounds to make out what really happens at the end of the film, but one thing is clear.  Zach and Olivia have taken a religious text too literally and doing so leads them to sacrifice the innocent.  Almost biblical, no?


Wicker Redux

The Wicker Man (1973) is a cult classic.  If it had had proper distribution and promotion it might’ve become a more mainstream hit when it was released.  Instead it was a slow burn.  Once it reached cult status controversy grew.  The movie doesn’t acknowledge, but was clearly influenced by, the novel Ritual by David Pinner.  I reviewed the novel earlier, and it isn’t particularly great.  The movie changes so much that it maybe was “inspired by” rather than “based on” the novel.  Several years later the director, Robin Hardy, decided to novelize the film.  His The Wicker Man also credits Anthony Shaffer because a good deal of the dialogue is lifted straight from the screenplay Shaffer wrote.  But the novelization also changes things.  That means there really is no novel that gives the full story of the film.

The creative process is never-ending.  Anyone who’s had a story published knows the tinkering that goes on, even after it appears in print.  The last word’s never truly that.  It takes restraint to leave something alone.  So Hardy wrote one of the more important characters out of his novel and wrote in another who seems to have very little connection to the story itself.  I’m still not sure what the point of adding him might have been.  Incidents that seem to be bracing for a sequel are present, and indeed Hardy wrote a spiritual successor that became a less impressive movie some years later.  Sometimes you do get it right the first time around.

Not that the movie is perfect—none are—but it has held up considerably well, growing in stature over the years.  A novelist, however, tends to have a deft touch that seems to be lacking here.  There’s a great deal of telling instead of showing.  Hardy’s Howie almost becomes a Mary Sue.  Tying his love of birds into the plot of the novel would’ve been one such deft touch.  Instead we have here a serviceable novel with much that’s familiar and even some that is strange and provocative.  It does restore some of the famously edited footage from the first cut of the film.  It tries to make Howie’s religious conviction clearer.  Changing parts of a story comes with the territory of those who spin yarns.  Hardy never really rose again to the heights he achieved in directing The Wicker Man.  It’s no wonder, then, that he felt compelled to return to it in literary form.


Devils and Witches

If you’re a regular reader (thank you!) you know that I’m currently under contract to write the Devil’s Advocates series volume on The Wicker Man.  As an editor myself I’m aware that academic series, often unlike fictional series books, tend to vary quite a bit from one another.  I want to try to get my submission close to the goal, however, so I’ve been reading volumes by other authors.  You may also know that The Wicker Man is part of an “unholy trinity” of early British folk-horror, with the other films being Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw.  Of the three my least favorite is Witchfinder General, so I’ve put off reading the particular volume on that film by Ian Cooper.  That has nothing to say about the author, but rather a lot to say about the base film.

The book is quite good.  Cooper is clearly aware of the controversy surrounding the movie and he points out some of the difficulties with it as well as what it does well.  His treatment is quite insightful.  The movie is violent and it’s an representation of the historical violence we thought we outgrew.  Matthew Hopkins was an historical “witch hunter” who was, in reality a serial killer,  mostly of women.  Fearing witches, while getting paid to find them, he was responsible for over 200 deaths.  As Cooper makes clear, the film lingers a bit too long on the abject nature of many of the tortures, not allowing us to look away.  For this reason many critics found the film distasteful.  I personally found it hard to watch.  Education isn’t always easy.

There’s quite a bit of film history in the book.  Cooper does a great job placing the movie in its cinematic context.  Like The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General is sometimes said not to be a horror film.  Indeed, there’s nothing supernatural about it.  Still, it fits the bill for many of those in-between movies that cross over into horror.  In this case it’s due to the violence.  For me, monsters are preferable to human monstrosity.  They’re easier to walk away from.  Although the witch hunts ended centuries ago, violence against women has remained.  Whether it’s legislative or physical or economic, women deserve better treatment than they’re offered by the male establishment.  Movies, and books about movies, like this one may be difficult to watch/read, but they carry important reminders that power continues to corrupt and it must be challenged and changed when it reverts to the mentality of Matthew Hopkins.  His spiritual kin, unfortunately, continue to thrive. 


Celts and Gods

We’re accustomed to religions being written out.  Indeed, many world religions have sacred texts from the Avestas to Dianetics.  Some ancient cultures, however, didn’t have written traditions and when they disappeared, as all cultures eventually do, their religion became nearly impossible to understand, or reconstruct.  Miranda Green has tried to provide, in written form, a summation of her understanding of The Gods of the Celts.  Celtic mythology, interestingly, had long ago caught the attention of New Religious Movements, as well as the New Age movement.  Much of the Wiccan calendar is based on Celtic religion and many New Age practices trace their roots to the ideas of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales lost to the mists of time.  What we actually do know about these cultures is about as fascinating as what’s been reconstructed.

Green’s study shows us a religion that grew out of profound respect for nature as well as human prowess at fighting.  (The “fighting Irish,” indeed may touch on an historical pulse.)  Celtic gods reflected a large swath of thinking throughout western, and parts of eastern, Europe.  Their names may be less familiar to us, and some may well have been lost to the vicissitudes of time, but there was a vibrant devotion to them that went as far as human sacrifice.  We know that it occurred, but it probably wasn’t frequent.  Although polytheistic, Celts were moral in their own understanding of their world.  Morals tend to come from human understanding of their place in a world they didn’t create.  How do you live in somebody else’s property?

Unlike the more literate Greeks, or even the Semitic religions on which they drew for their stories, we have no narrative Celtic mythology.  We have fragments and glimpses.  Nobody had a recorder while sitting around the fire, recounting the activities of the gods.  Later, sources such as the Mabinogion were written down, which surely held some memories of such fireside tales.  The originals, however, we’ll probably never have.  Such is the way of conquered peoples.  What the Romans started the Christians finished.  We’re left with some deities, such as Brigit, made into saints, but their stories forgotten and not originally written down.  Our time looking back isn’t ill-spent.  It teaches us who we are and guides who we might become.  Our own violent politicians, threatening to murder those who are different, clearly have learned nothing from history, ancient or modern.


Mag Dash

I don’t do much magazine reading.  Back when I had more time (mainly before buying a house), there were a few with which I attempted to keep up.  Mainly, however, I’d buy a particular issue that I wanted to keep.  I suspect that’s because I’m a book reader and my time for pure reading is limited.  Strange thing for a professor/editor hybrid to write, but there you have it.  Each year I “pledge” a number of books to Goodreads to keep me honest, and achieving that goal adds a kind of friendly pressure on my reading time.  Magazines don’t count, and mostly I never read the whole thing.  My current book project is an analysis of the movie The Wicker Man.  This led to some magazine reading.

Horror movies, especially, have been traditionally treated as ephemera with little lasting cultural value.  Fan magazines, therefore, often provide most of the periodical treatment for some of these “B movies.”  The Wicker Man suffered legendary distribution problems and that may have been what prompted Cinefantastique to devote all its feature space to this particular movie back in 1977 (the movie came out four years earlier and was still struggling).  The article is a lengthy one, not quite to the extent of The Atlantic, but still several pages.  It was the origin of the much repeated epithet “the Citizen Kane of horror films.”  To read this I had to locate a copy of the magazine.  There was, fortunately, a seller in Beloit, Wisconsin who wasn’t extortionate (thank you!).  My experience in buying print materials from the seventies has often proven the opposite.

Occasionally someone glimpsing my books will cattily ask, “Have you read them all?”  No.  But then not all print matter is for reading all the way through.  Reference materials, for example, are consulted.  The way my mind works, I need to keep things around so I can find them again.  Studies have shown that retention for electronic media isn’t as reliable as it is for print.  That may change some day as we evolve more and more into extensions of our machines, but for now I use it to justify keeping books.  Since I can’t predict the future, I never know when some forgotten tome might come up again in a new project.  That has happened a few times already while working on my small book on The Wicker Man.  And that includes magazines with good articles.  This one is a keeper.


Haunted Landscapes

The Devil’s Advocates series consists of short books focused on a single horror film.  For horror fans they’re a great resource, as they will hopefully also be in teaching settings.  David Evans-Powell’s recent volume on The Blood on Satan’s Claw is a fine example of just how intelligent horror can be, and how it can be interpreted so.  This particular movie from the early seventies was never a major revenue earner, but that in itself is a lesson.  Influence, measured in smaller scales, can still create an impact on people’s lives.  Evans-Powell’s treatment takes several angles, each of which casts light on this unusual movie.  Reading this little book brought quite a few ideas to mind, both about social structures and religion.  The film is set in the early 18th century, with a city judge who is problematic actually saving the day.

Since The Blood on Satan’s Claw is folk horror, quite a bit of the discussion focuses on landscape.  Paying close attention to landscape reveals hidden information.  It becomes almost a character.  At the risk of too many spoilers, the film is about uncovering Satan—or a demon, it’s not terribly clear on the point—from a farm field.  As this evil character gains power the local children are drawn to him and the village authorities are unaware of what’s going on in the nearby woods.  Landscapes reveal and conceal as the creature gains power and the children engage in acts of violence.  The response of the judge is a violence of its own.  The movie doesn’t really deliver all that it promises in that regard, but Evans-Powell explains how the film was made and that, in turn, explains some of the rough edges.

Religion and horror go naturally together.  I suppose any film with “Satan” in the title will address religion somehow.  Not all horror is religious, of course, but many of our fears derive from religious subjects.  It’s almost as if as we ceased to fear the landscape—nature having been tamed to some degree—we began to find fear in religious thinking.  Put another way, religion has kept fear alive.  The Blood on Satan’s Claw was never a major, big-budget release.  Except for fans of British horror it has largely escaped notice.  Folk horror, because of its recent revival, brought interest back to some of these older efforts to explore such themes, many of them implying a religion hidden in the landscape.  This book provide a useful map in exploring that territory.


Religious Dinosaurs

Dippy is, apparently, a common name for pet diplodocuses.  The statue of a diplodocus outside the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh is fondly known as “Dippy,” as is the fossilized remains of one such dinosaur from London’s Natural History Museum.  The London Dippy is on tour, or at least has been.  I learned about the fact that Dippy was in Norwich Cathedral just a day or so after the exhibit closed (I wouldn’t have been able to make it in any case; I mean I haven’t been able to get to the Pittsburgh Dippy and I live in the same state).  There are still plenty of photos on the cathedral’s website.  It’s a striking juxtaposition.  A massive stone building constructed to a medieval conception of God and one of the best examples of evolution, far older than the church on several orders of magnitude, peacefully coexisting.

John Bell Hatcher, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

American evangelicalism has a much harder time accepting science.  I’ve been writing about change recently.  One of the changes in western thinking has been to move from the “I told you so” of clerics to the “I can show you evidence” of scientists.  Those who like others to tell them what to think have a difficult time letting go of medieval notions of the world—that it’s flat, and young, and about to end, as if God has a very limited imagination.  We now know that the world has been here far longer than one interpretation of the Bible posits, but that doesn’t make it any easier to have a conversation about it.  Many religions want to claim knowledge that can’t be questioned.  And yet, dinosaurs and cathedrals seem to mix well.

The assumption that those who think differently are evil, or are inspired by evil, is one of the most insidious children of monotheism.  With one God comes the idea of only one way to understand that deity and all other interpretations come from that divinity’s arch-enemy.  It’s a view of the world that struggles with change.  Historians, even those of us who focus on the history of religions, tend to take a long view. It’s possible to trace the development of ideas that have lead to the strange juxtapositions of our modern world.  Apologists so convinced of their interpretation of Genesis that they think the Bible wouldn’t have found dinosaurs worth remarking about, for example, and then cramming them on the ark.  Others, it seems, welcome dinosaurs into cathedrals.  Which is a better way to be humble before God?


Everything’s a Nail

Taking my first, tentative steps into horror analysis, I had read a great many monographs on the subject.  I had watched many horror films over the years, but since my family has no love of the genre, and since habitually under-employed I can’t afford to pay for many, my quota is fairly modest.  I’ve missed out on many.  When I could afford it, I started out with either movies I’d heard of when younger but had never watched, or packs of ultra-cheap B (C or D maybe) movies that nobody has ever heard of.  As I lamented recently, British films were rare—Hammer, which held the English reputation for horror, was the undiscovered country.  Then I saw that Peter Hutchings’ Hammer and Beyond: The British Horror Film had come out in a second edition.  (The new edition contains three of Hutchings’ other articles as well as the original text.)  I had to read it.

Although I’ve not seen many of the movies discussed in the book (again, access issues) it was fascinating nonetheless.  Hutchings considers the elements of gender and Britishness in his readings of the films and there’s quite a lot there.  Horror is generally seen as a conservative genre (it tends to uphold typical social values) and for many Hammer and other films this meant that male prerogative was important.  Equally important, however, is that horror often disrupts this hierarchy.  There are strong, and even fatal, women here.  Horror embodies the acting out of the complex world of fear between women and men.  The study, as befitting a revised dissertation, is laid out chronologically for the most part.

Some readers of this blog have kindly pointed out ways to access Hammer films in the US.  Now all I need is the time.  I’ve been able to keep up with my reading, at least.  And this was a worthwhile book to read, even without having seen much Hammer.  It surprised me, however, that their list of classic horror wasn’t longer.  Having read about Hammer for many years,  I suspected their output was massive.  Instead it was mostly just impactful.  The essays following the main body of the book make the point that British horror was/is distinctive.  These days a lot of international cooperation takes place in the movie industry, and national cinema is becoming more global.  We could use a little less nationalism just about now.  So I’ll continue my quest for Hammer and try to make my way through the movies I really should add to my repertoire.  It’s a good book that can make you want to do that.


Quest for Quest

The Quest for the Wicker Man is a rarity.  Not only is it very difficult to locate and very expensive if you do find it, it’s also a collection of essays where each one is worth reading.  I’d read some of it before, but since I’m writing a book on the movie I thought I ought to sit down and go through it cover to virtual cover.  I had to settle for a Kindle version—please bring this back in print!—and was reminded yet again why a paper book is so much more satisfactory as a reading experience.  You see, I’m a flipper (not the dolphin kind).  I like to flip back and forth while I’m reading.  Clicking and swiping (both of which, coincidentally, dolphins do) isn’t satisfying.  And if you underline in a Kindle everybody else can see it.  I prefer the privacy of a print book.

In any case, if you’re interested in probing a bit into The Wicker Man you’ll find quite a lot of information here.  (Available on Kindle for a reasonable price, if not a comfy reading experience.)  Many aspects of the film are covered here.  One thing I won’t be discussing in my book is the music.  Firstly, I’m not qualified to do so, and secondly, it is done well here.  Essays also discuss religion (which I will discuss in my book), paganism (ditto), and many other aspects.  This is a book of conference proceedings—a boon for fans, but bust for most publishers.  It’s also a boon for those who like marking up used books to the tune of 64 cents per page (the lowest price on Amazon).  

Some of us believe a page is an ontological entity.  Once narrative writing began those responsible for clay tablets soon settled on a size that is, well, handy.  You can hold it easily.  That concept translated to the codex, or “book” as we know it.  Scrolls were cumbersome, but books offered many advantages.  For hundreds of years they were the standard-bearers of accessible knowledge.  I miss page numbers when reading an ebook.  I don’t want to know the percentage of screens I’ve swiped.  I want to know how many pages I’ve read, what page I’m on, and how many pages there are to go.  (The best of electronic books preserve that information.)  The book was not a form that required improvement.  Well, at least that digression kept me from giving up too much information about my book.  If you want to read it, when it comes out, I recommend the print form.


B Film

October brings horror films to mind.  As soon as the calendar clicks over, discussions of favorite scary movies begins.  As I’ve mentioned many times before, it is the one time of year when those of us who watch horror don’t feel so odd.  It is a little strange, however, to be watching movies related to The Wicker Man at this time of year.  As holiday horror that particular movie is set at the other end of the year, in May.  So I had to see The Wicker Tree, something I’ve avoided doing all these years.  Neither properly a sequel nor a remake, The Wicker Tree is Robin Hardy’s re-envisioning of the story with a larger budget.  There’s no way to prove it, but it seems likely that it was released in response to the unfortunate remake of The Wicker Man in 2006.

There are any number of things that could be said about The Wicker Tree, not least of which is that it’s clear Anthony Shaffer was a far better screenwriter than Robin Hardy.  (Shaffer had written a sequel, more properly conceived, which has not been filmed.)  Robin Hardy was, of course, the director of the original movie.  Plagued by low budget, rushed filming, and lack of production company support, The Wicker Man nevertheless soared.  The Wicker Tree is what is termed a “spiritual successor”—it doesn’t directly carry on the story of the original, but draws its inspiration from it.  It was based on a novel written by Hardy titled Cowboys for Christ.  Two evangelical missionaries are sent to Scotland to convert as many lapsed Christians as they can.  Of course, their invitation to Tressock is a trap so they can be sacrificed on May Day.

Despite the many unanswered questions the film leaves, to someone raised evangelical it seems that Robin Hardy really doesn’t understand what evangelicals are.  Beth and Steve, on their tour through the lowlands, do things evangelicals just wouldn’t do.  They drink, they dance, they swear, they play cards.  The only thing he seemed to get about evangelicals is they like to sing and talk about Jesus and hand out pamphlets.  This is something I often see is movies—those who try to portray evangelicals haven’t actually been evangelical themselves and don’t understand them.  I also find this in my interactions with British colleagues all the time—they don’t really comprehend what evangelicalism is.  That could be a topic for its own post.  In any case, The Wicker Tree has its moments, but it’s convoluted, cynical, and off-the-mark.  It may’ve been intended as a spiritual successor, but its prototype required no re-envisioning.


Druid Redux

I know I’ve talked about this book before.  I had cause to learn about the Druids again, and Peter Berresford Ellis’ book was handy.  I’m pretty sure I have Stuart Piggot’s book somewhere, but I haven’t seen it since the move, so I turned to Ellis again.  The first time I read him I was commuting and couldn’t take notes.  (My specialized form of research has its limitations.)  This time it took several days’ more reading, and doing so with more active engagement.  One thing that really stood out to me this time was the Indo-European connection.  Druids, according to Ellis, were essentially Brahmins—the intellectual class in a stratified society.  Having derived from a common ancestor, the two societies diverged with Brahmins surviving in India and Druids going extinct with the somewhat genocidal treatment of various other groups against the Celts.

Druids were egalitarian as far as the sexes went.  This is one of those examples where Christianity’s masculinist orientation furthered a trend that led to women being treated as inferior.  Evidence points to early female Druids, and even female political leadership among the Celts.  As the male godhead took over the remaining influence of women eventually evaporated.  The Druids, you see, were extremely focused on learning the truth.  Their pre-Christian judicial system was oriented toward fairness and finding out what really happened.  In other words, ethically they required no conversion.  That was a matter of theology, and theology often brings its own set of issues.  

The Romans, who’d had a long and protracted war against the Celts, drove them to the fringes of their empire.  Britain (and Brittany in France) were far enough removed from the base of power in Rome that the Celts survived in the edges of the islands: Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Ireland.  As a distinctive culture, Celts have been in fashion for some time now, but that’s a new development, historically speaking.  Ellis’ book explores this angle quite a bit since understanding the Celts is essential to comprehending who the Druids were.  The lack of native written accounts (Druids forbade writing their wisdom, passing it on by memorization over the centuries) hampers our ability to have a coherent history.  Ellis, however, seems to have reconstructed well.  Modern Druid revivals necessarily contain speculative elements, and historically the Druids wouldn’t have been perfect either—nobody is.  They do seem to have had a reasonable and just society for the most part, something we’ve managed to lose, along with much of their wisdom.


Belated Lughnasadh

We’re accustomed to think of summer as a “non-holiday” season beyond the bookends of Memorial and Labor Days, and the midsummer Independence Day.  Still, ancient people felt the turning of the year at the start of August with the festival of Lughnasadh.  I often forget it myself, although I’ve been feeling a tinge of autumn in the air this past week.  You can smell it at the very tip of your nose if you’re sensitive enough.  The cool of the pre-dawn air presages changes to come.  The wheel turns constantly.  Lughnasadh was actually Sunday (August 1).  Along with Samhain (Halloween), Imbolc, and Beltane (May Day), it divides the year into quarters (now called cross-quarter days since they fall roughly midway between the solstices and equinoxes).  It reminds us that summer is getting on; Lughnasadh was the festival of early harvest.

Lughnasadh was originally said to have been initiated by Lugh, one of the most prominent of Celtic deities.  Several European cities, such as Lyon, have names that likely derive from Lugh.  A warrior god renowned for his ability with crafts, he was also a savior god.  Although I’m no expert in Celtic mythology, it’s difficult to live in a Gaelic country for three years and not absorb some of the fascination for it.  Unlike Greek mythology, there aren’t large numbers of ancient literary pieces that tell the full story.  There are tales enough to know that Lugh was a major god of pre-Christian Europe and that as Christianity spread he was challenged by another savior god.

Although now rather obscure in much of the world, the Christian holiday of Lammas, or “Loaf Mass” was settled on August 1, likely to draw attention from Lughnasadh.  It too was a celebration of first fruits, for as reluctant as we are to let the light and warmth of summer go, plants are beginning to feel the onset of fall.  Lammas is a festival of communion—thus the loaf—and continues to be celebrated with local customs.  It includes the blessing of bakeries or of bringing bread to church to be blessed.  Lost in the modern rendition of summer, Lughnasadh or Lammas is barely recognized by most of us.  I’d never heard of it until I began researching holidays for a book I wrote that was never published.  Festivals that celebrate the changing seasons have an appeal to those of us isolated indoors behind screens all the time.  Perhaps it’s time to bring some summer holidays back. Lugh says yes.

Perhaps Lugh, via Wikimedia Commons

Reading Wicker

Have you ever read a book where factual errors make you question the larger picture?  I suppose being trained in research makes me more bothered by small inaccuracies.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made mistakes myself.  Even in publications.  But when they come near the beginning it’s rather unfortunate.  That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Allan Brown’s Inside The Wicker Man.  I actually enjoyed it quite a lot.  There’s a real treasure trove here for fans of this cult classic.  I suspect it’s the definitive treatment of the misfortunes the film faced after it was shot, and even during the shooting process itself.  It’s somewhat surprising that so many of us have even heard of it.  When the film’s production company turns against the project it must present special difficulties. Errors are human. Most of the mistakes in the book were about religion.

For Wicker Man fans this book is a great resource.  Not only does it tell the story, but it serves as a useful reference. It includes information on locations, script excerpts, and behind-the-scenes stories.  You get to feel that you know the people involved beyond simply seeing them as characters in a play.  One of the points that Brown makes, while obvious in retrospect, is crucial:  The Wicker Man works as horror not in spite of religion, but because of religion.  I struggle to articulate what the two share in common, but it is useful to be reminded that a prime example comes in this unusual movie.  I wrote about it in Holy Horror, but there’s much even there that I left unsaid.

Brown had the distinct privilege of interviewing many of the people involved in the making of the film.  Most of the cast and crew have since died—the movie was, after all, nearly half-a-century ago.  Even so, when attempting to get at what a novel, movie, song, or piece of visual art means, the realization soon dawns that it’s often in the mind of the observer.  Some songs, for example, speak intensely to some people while being ignored by many others.  The Wicker Man never swam into the mainstream.  I discovered it during an intense period of watching as much quality horror as I could get my hands on.  Immediately I was struck by its intelligence and its strong message.  I’ve watched it several times since, making me, I suppose, a fan.  Enough of one to read this book and enjoy it, in any case.  And to recommend it to others who may be interested in the fascinating film it explores, along with its religion.